Handwriting now a lost art

July 29, 2008

I’d better start with a confession: I prefer a key board to pen and paper because my handwriting is appalling and I once spent several minutes trying to transcribe my shorthad before realising it was longhand.

That is unfortunate for a journalist and it’s probably unusual for my generation for whom tidy hand writing – and good spelling – were among the basics required from us at school.

But it’s probably the norm for the current generation of school children who are having to relearn the art of handwriting because they’ll need it when they sit exams.

The disjunction between the acquired skill of keyboarding and the need to handwrite exams has led some schools to incorporate handwriting lessons in years 11 and 12 as students find they have to relearn the art of using a pen and paper quickly – lost after years of using computers, laptops and mobiles.

The senior English teacher at Barker College, on Sydney’s North Shore, Sue Marks, says she has had top students forced to do remedial courses to get their handwriting legible enough for HSC examiners to read.

Sydney Grammar will not accept typed essays in the later years of high school. The headmaster, John Vallance, says the school places a very strong emphasis on ensuring every student can write legibly.

“Handwriting is an important expression of a student’s personality, which is certainly not demonstrable through keyboarding,” Dr Vallance said. “It’s a skill this generation should not lose.”

I think he has a point about not losing the skill but If my handwriting expresses my personalilty I might be in serious need of therapy.

While the cautious toe-dipping of NSW Board of Studies is mainly directed at issues such as equality and practicality, there are other concerns among senior educators about the onslaught of technology-driven methods on the very process of learning and thinking among young people.

Barker’s Dr Marks said: “The process of writing – whether it be by hand, or on a computer keyboard – is closely connected with the process of thinking. Research points to the fact that thoughts are generated, not merely recorded, through the process of writing.

“So my fear, in relation to the rise of abbreviated forms adopted by many when emailing, text messaging and instant messaging, is that the capacity for deep thinking, fostered through writing, will be eroded.”

Dr Marks said it was not that writing using these technologies was inherently detrimental to deep thought. “In my view, as society becomes more and more dependent upon technology, it will become increasingly important for clear and cohesive writing to be taught in schools.

“If this is not the case we run the risk of students’ writing – and thinking – reflecting their text-messaging practices and becoming little more than a series of truncated ideas. Many of today’s students are quite capable of sophisticated thought, but as grab-bites become the norm in modern communication technologies, it is vital that the skills involved in producing thoughtful, developed compositions, reflective of higher order thinking, are fostered in our schools.”

It is a view shared by Roslyn Arnold, honorary professor of education and social work at the University of Sydney, whose original PhD was on school children’s writing development. Professor Arnold argues that it is the act of writing that actually creates, not simply reflects, thought.

While keyboarding did not necessarily have a detrimental effect on writing, just focusing on the speed of communicating could rob a student of the opportunity of deep reflective composing, she says.

A poster in the English Department at Otago says: I read therefore I think. If these people are right then it might also be true that we think because we write.

If computers are interfering with our ability to think deeply and clearly we have a problem, and even if they don’t, we need to equip children to write with pen and paper so they can cope when the power goes off.

Hat tip: goNZo Freakpower


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